Belfast Telegraph

French fans have fallen in love with Les Bleus again

Winning team: two-goal hero Olivier Giroud and France coach Didier Deschamps celebrate after the 5-2 mauling of Iceland on Sunday
Winning team: two-goal hero Olivier Giroud and France coach Didier Deschamps celebrate after the 5-2 mauling of Iceland on Sunday
France fans cheer as they watch the Euro 2016 quarter-final football match between France and Iceland at the fan zone in Nice

By Mark Ogden

It was a dog-eared free-sheet lying on the floor of the Metro train heading into the Gare du Nord, but the front page succinctly summed up the changing mood of a nation towards its football team.

'La ballade des joueurs heureux' (The ballad of happy players) it proclaimed, with the image of France's new stars celebrating at the end of the 5-2 quarter-final rout of Iceland at the Stade de France on Sunday night.

It has taken time for France to fall in love with Les Bleus once again.

The joyous scenes of unity which followed the World Cup triumph of 1998, when Aime Jacquet's multi-cultural team brought the country together, have long since been buried under the detritus of tournament failure, the squad mutiny of South Africa 2010, the bust-up between Samir Nasri and previous coach Laurent Blanc and, just weeks before Euro 2016 began, the omission from Didier Deschamps' squad of Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa, two of the most prominent players of North African descent available to the national team.

There has also been the booing of Olivier Giroud in pre-tournament warm-up games, but the victory against Iceland lit a flame ignited to some extent by the stirring second victory over the Republic of Ireland in Lyon.

There was no booing or jeering in the Stade de France on Sunday evening and, as Iceland's heroic players celebrated their remarkable tournament with their own supporters at the end of the game, the image of Deschamps and his players doing the same with the French contingent hinted at the new bond between the country and its team.

"There's always been a lot of support over the last few weeks and months," Deschamps insisted after the game.

"We have wonderful support from the people, and the players decided to react like that at the end themselves.

"This team is loved by the fans. We don't do everything perfectly - although we did a lot well against Iceland - and commit to everything, but we were able to put our foot down in the quarter-final."

Giroud, who has endured a turbulent relationship with the French supporters, was applauded off the pitch following his two-goal display against Iceland.

And he admits that, having been jeered prior to the friendly against Scotland in Metz last month, the affection of the home crowd is a welcome change.

"It's always nice to be cheered," Giroud said. "But I have no feeling of resentment from what went before.

"I think I have the right attitude when I am on the pitch and I always give my maximum for the team."

With Germany looming in Thursday's semi-final in Marseille, however, Giroud has thrown down the gauntlet for the supporters by urging them to drive the team onto victory in Stade Velodrome.

"The fans were magnificent in Paris, but it will be different against the world champions in Marseille," Giroud said.

"So I hope the French fans support us as enthusiastically as they did in Paris.

"They will support us fully, but it is a semi-final in our home nation against a great team and we need the supporters to get behind us again to make the difference."

France has fond memories of Marseille, with the epic 3-2 semi-final victory over Portugal at Euro 84 being played out at a raucous Stade Velodrome.

It is a venue which can be as brutal to France as it can be passionate, with the Mediterranean port city offering a wholly different dynamic to Paris.

But Deschamps, the World Cup-winning captain in 1998, expects home advantage to be a crucial factor in his team's favour.

"We're playing in France, our own country, and we'll go all out for it," Deschamps said. "Anything is possible.

"We're playing Germany. We're in the semi-finals. We have the right, as do the players, to enjoy the fact we're in the last four.

"There's no danger of the players switching off or wondering if we've succeeded in the tournament and as for Germany, it won't be a stroll in the park for them. We will go all out for it."

Eleven players and a supportive nation.

Even Germany may find that combination impossible to overcome.

Belfast Telegraph